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The Great Myths: Unicorns, Bigfoot, and...Posture?

Why Perfect Posture Doesn't Exist!

We've all been told our entire lives to sit up straight. By our parents, by our teachers, even by our medical professionals. But why? What even is 'good' posture? Does 'bad' posture really cause back and neck pain? Or is it just something mom would tell us so we don’t look as lazy? These are all questions I’m about to answer for you. I’m going to tell you what the science of posture really says. But first I have a question for you...which one of these people do you think is more likely to have back or neck pain? Honestly…

I’ll tell you in a minute. But first, let’s talk about what ‘good’ posture really is. As you can see in the first picture above, it’s called plumb line posture. Everything lines up perfectly along a vertical line from our ears to our ankles. This was based on the theory that in this position, muscles and joints are most relaxed and have the least amount of tension, therefore are less likely to become painful.

But does anyone actually exist like that?! In 15 years as a PT, analyzing people’s posture, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it. But just like bigfoot, some people may claim they have. Fortunately, a lot of smart people have done a lot of research on this. The first one I read from the 1990’s looked at over 400 people. And of those, do you know how many had perfect plumb line posture….drum roll please….ZERO!! Not a single one. There was a huge variation in the postures found, but no single one that most people had (in other words, no ‘normal’). So why would we strive for some ideal that doesn’t exist? Well, maybe if we just try to sit and stand a little straighter, we won’t get back or neck pain. Makes sense…

...Or does it? There have been a lot of studies on this as well. Does bad posture cause neck or back pain? Surprisingly, the answer is consistently no (take that mom)! Most of this research has found that people who get back and neck pain adopt all kinds of postures. Many things can cause neck and back pain, but sitting a certain way isn’t one of them.

So here’s where we are...perfect posture doesn’t exist. There is no ‘normal’ or ‘good’ posture, and therefore we cannot know what ‘bad’ posture is. AND, posture does not cause pain. Normal posture is whatever works best for you. Our bodies will always take the path of least resistance and sit in the easiest way possible. Sit how you sit, stand how you stand. And if you don’t have pain, don’t worry about it!

Now there is one caveat worth mentioning! If you already have pain, changing your posture may give you some relief. If so, then please do it! But understand that changing posture for pain relief is only short term and temporary...a symptom modifier. Do not feel that you will have to sit or stand that way for the rest of your life. Remember, just because it feels better at the time, does not mean it caused your pain in the first place or will cause it to return in the future. Perfect posture, unicorns, the loch ness monster...they don’t exist. And it’s a waste of your time and energy to pursue it (sorry bigfoot hunters).

So what’s the answer to the question I asked above? I’m sure you know now, but just in case...neither person, based on their posture, are any more or less likely to get pain!

Rob Drenning PT, OCS, FAAOMPT

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